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A Review of Jennifer MacBain-Stephens’ The Messenger Is Already Dead

Central Question: How Does Joan of Arc Translate to a Feminist Icon for the 21st Century?

Joan is back (or maybe she has been there all along, signaling to us through the flames across time). Either way, her presence is more and more obvious and progressively cooler. In 1999 Luc Besson gave us an action movie with Milla Jovovich as the teenaged warrior-maiden of Orleans, which seems now to have been preparation for Jovovich’s main gig for the last fifteen years as the unstoppable uber-warrior Alice in the Resident Evil films. Four years ago Arcade Fire released the album Reflektor with the song “Joan of Arc,” half in French and all bass-pounding disco redux. In Anne Carson’s 2016 book (or collection of 22 chapbooks in a slipcase), Float, there is an essay called, “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” about translating Joan of Arc’s interview. What Carson finds so exciting about Joan here, before weaving in discussion of Holderlin and painter Francis Bacon, is Joan’s courage in silence and a resistance to cliché.

But who is Joan to us today? The brave young warrior? A woman who wore men’s clothing in her efforts to join and lead in a man’s world? She led a country to victory, crowned a king herself, and eventually she was burned at the stake for continuing to believe in the voices that originally led her to victory. Centuries later she was made a saint. All her actions were specific for her time and place during the Hundred Years’ War in France. Above all she was a Catholic Christian. How does that translate to a feminist icon for the 21st century?

In Mary Gordon’s 2000 brief, yet lyrical, study Joan of Arc for the Penguin Lives series she talks around Joan in the introduction and synopsizes her importance thusly:

…she stands as a triumph of the invisible over the visible, of the potency of pure intention, of acts that shimmer and endure beyond the life of the actor or the efficacy of the acts. We have always needed someone like her, someone who can disinfect us of our disreputable and petty tendencies. If we can love her than we are not a people who hate women. If we can call her death a triumph, we are not time servers, pension collectors who measure success only by what seems to work. If we devote ourselves to her, we are higher creatures than the way we live our lives suggests. We need her as the heroine of our better selves.

Released this month from Stalkinghorse Books, Jennifer MacBain-Stephens’ collection of poems, The Messenger Is Already Dead, gives voice to “she who heard voices” anew and for now, invoking Joan as this heroine of our better selves. Most impressive about the collection is that like the best of what poetic expression has to offer, these poems are not as much “on” the subject they address as much as they are “of” it.

MacBain-Stephens makes it clear in these poems that she knows the history, but she makes Joan her own. Joan speaks to her and us in tones and terms of our world. “Joan would rather cut her fingers off than caress a waxen cheek/and it’s all what time should we meet up after the war,” we read in a poem called, “Invocation: Joan Reads the Crowd.” So many poems here are a journey, a progression, ending with one final punch of a line. The first poem, “Pyre: Wind As Hell Beast,” ends with “Joan dips a toe into the afterlife and she is glowing.” It’s the perfect ending as beginning.

Not all of the poems are about Joan of Arc but there are connections that run through them. If Joan is the plot (not that one is necessary) then the book has several subplots. Feminist concept artist Jenny Holzer is a guiding voice through the poems invoking her name and work. Poems inspired by Man Ray’s film Emak Bakia (Basque for “leave me alone”) are scattered about at intervals projecting crisp images like the flicker of a 1920s moving picture. A collection centered around a figure who heard voices—voices she obeyed toward historic ends—employs a range of voices and poetic styles. While the front matter tells us that some of the Joan poems have been already collected in a chapbook called, Jeanne: Poems About Revenge, Ants and Light, and other contexts of poems announce themselves, the assemble here in this volume is dizzying in a satisfying way. The work, The Messenger Is Already Dead, stands on its own.

After forty-eight poems, we are presented with a final vignette, a prose poem serving as epilogue (called “Epilogue: Grackles”). MacBain-Stephens confirms here that time is a question when trying to listen to Joan. The poet’s twisting imagery and deeply committed metaphors give us ravens: “Two argue in the sky If someone is dead, do you say ‘I love’ or ‘I loved.’” There is a suite of five poems at the center of the book called “She Came Out From Under the Bed.” Each poem begins with the title as the first line. The name Joan is never used and no other name is invoked as in the poems for Jenny Holzer, the poem titled, “PJ Harvey Says She Is Going To Take Her Problems to the United Nations,” or the poem, “The Sleepwalker,” which is after the artist Lilli Carré. With no designation we feel the she is Joan. This she is darkly maternal (“she forced a worm down my throat”), this she is a warrior of various weapons (“She came out from under the bed/brought all legality thunder with her/procurement contracts and readiness,/repurposed grenades,/hag witch catastrophe”). MacBain-Stephens has trained us to find Joan anywhere. Any she can be Joan if she listens.

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